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WRAPUP 1-Obama turns to top aide in 'tech surge' to fix health care website

David Morgan and John Whitesides
Tuesday, 22 Oct 2013 | 4:01 PM ET

* White House chooses insider for healthcare.gov problems

* Republicans open investigation on rollout

WASHINGTON, Oct 22 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday turned to a trusted advisor to lead a "tech surge" aimed at repairing the troubled launch of the government website at the heart of his signature healthcare law.

Jeffrey Zients, a former Office of Management and Budget official who will become head of the National Economic Council in January, will provide short-term management advice and counsel on the project, said Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

She said a team of experts and specialists drawn from government and industry, "including veterans of top Silicon Valley companies," also would work to diagnose and fix the problems that have plagued the rollout of Healthcare.gov since Oct. 1 and drawn criticism from Republicans opposed to the law.

The HHS had said in a blog post at the weekend that it was bringing in a "tech surge" of people, but neither the White House nor HHS has provided details about the cause of the problems, precisely what is being done to fix them and who exactly is doing the fixing.

Tuesday's announcement of Zients becoming involved underlines Obama's seriousness about putting the website controversy behind him. Zients has 20 years of business experience as a CEO, management consultant and entrepreneur.

He helped the Obama administration figure out a solution for the "cash for clunkers" car exchange program's website which crashed repeatedly when it opened early in Obama's first term.

Republicans, long opposed to the 2010 Affordable Care Act known as "Obamacare," have seized on the information vacuum about the website's problems to start their own investigation in Congress about the role of the White House.

CRITICISM OF DESIGN FEATURE

In a letter to two top administration technology officers, Republicans on the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee said their investigation already points to significant White House involvement in discussions between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and website contractor CGI Federal.

CGI officials have also told committee staff the widely criticized design feature requiring visitors to create accounts before shopping for insurance was implemented in late August or early September, barely a month before the Oct. 1 start of open enrollment.

The requirement has helped lead to a traffic bottleneck that worsened underlying flaws in a system intended to serve millions of Americans without health care insurance. The technology problems have frustrated attempts by many to sign on and allowed only a trickle of enrollments.

"We are concerned that the administration required contractors to change course late in the implementation process to conceal Obamacare's effect on increasing health insurance premiums," said the letter authored by panel chairman Darrell Issa and four Republican subcommittee chairmen.

The committee probe, the second House Republican investigation into Obamacare, follows the latest effort by the party to derail the law during a 16-day government shutdown in October.

Republicans, who view the law as an unwarranted expansion of the federal government, eventually dropped demands for delays or changes to the healthcare law before they would support a federal funding bill and allowed the government to re-open.

Obama said on Monday he was frustrated by the website's problems. A prolonged delay in getting Healthcare.gov to work could jeopardize White House efforts to sign up as many as 7 million people in 2014, the first full year it takes effect.

'NOT ABOUT FIXING BLAME'

The White House declined to directly address the Oct. 21 letter to U.S. Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

"It's not about, you know, who's to blame for glitches in a website. What we need to focus on is fixing those problems, making the information that the American people want available to them in an efficient way. And that's what we're doing," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Under Issa's leadership, the House oversight committee has investigated the Obama administration on several issues since Republicans took control of the chamber in the 2010 elections.

Last year, Issa accused Obama or his aides of obstructing an investigation into the botched "Fast and Furious" gun-running probe on the Arizona border with Mexico. He also spearheaded the House investigation of an attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and another into the Internal Revenue Service's handling of conservative non-profit groups seeking tax exempt status.

Issa's committee is asking VanRoekel and Park to provide all documents and communications that describe the federal system's architecture and design, CMS' role as system integrator, problems relayed to the White House and the decision to require account creation as a prerequisite to seeing insurance plans.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has started its own investigation and is scheduled to question Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius and several contractors at separate hearings within the next eight days.

Republican Representative Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the health care website has "completely failed."

"What we see now is a stark and fatal flaw. This is a failure at the greatest level," she told CNN.